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S & H Concert Review

Sibelius, Symphony No.4, Mozart, Requiem; Sally Matthews (sop), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo), Mark Padmore (tenor), Alfred Reiter (bass), London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst (con); Barbican Hall, 15th February, 2004 (AR) 

Ostensibly this concert seemed rather an odd coupling of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony with Mozart’s Requiem; however, both works were written when the composers were suffering from illness, and indeed the programme heading was entitled: ‘Odes to mortality’.

Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony (1911) opened with brooding and deep ‘cello and double bass playing which immediately set the tone of this stark score. The darkness of the exquisitely grainy strings was brilliantly contrasted with the shafts of light emanating from the brass and the cutting-edge, punctuating timpani from Andrew Smith.

Franz Welser-Möst conducted with great sensitivity and economy, adopting a measured pace with broad tempi which perfectly brought out the sense of barrenness and alienation. Throughout, the conductor had a deep understanding of the score’s structure, perfectly integrating all four movements as an organically projected whole.

The Allegro had an eerie sense of underlying menace with the conductor invoking murky, almost subterranean sounds and textures. The Largo was the pivotal point of this performance, with the LSO strings excelling themselves in richness of tone and darkness of expression; notably ghostly and melancholic was Tim Hugh’s perfectly played solo ‘cello. In the final movement, the versatile LSO strings produced a whole gamut of spectacular sounds from icy shrillness to shimmering, distant delicacy, with violent outbursts from screeching woodwind.

There is no grandiose closing finale and no real end - just dark ‘cellos abruptly cutting dead into nothingness: a nothingness which echoes the sound of silence. The audience’s applause was shamefully short for such an expressively played and arrestingly conducted performance.

Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor K626 was given a wild, energetic performance, with Welser-Möst inspiring his forces to give their all – and in the case of the LSO Chorus, this was a problem. When the chorus were at full throttle they drowned out the orchestra, resulting in a loss of important writing for the woodwind and brass. This was notable in the Dies Irae where the trumpets were too recessed and in Rex Tremendae the chorus sang too loudly for this hall’s oppressive acoustic; they simply sounded shrill and harsh to the ears. The Chorus were at their best in the Lacrimosa producing sublime and mesmeric sounds. Perhaps Chorus Director Joseph Cullen should have reined back his singers to integrate them more closely with the LSO and overcome the sound difficulties inherent in this space.

The quartet of solo voices in the Benedictus blended perfectly and were particularly well integrated with the woodwind and trombones which were at last clearly audible. Soprano Sally Mathews produced a pristine, diamond-bright purity of tone which contrasted superbly with the deep, sumptuous bass of Alfred Reiter.

The closing Agnus Dei had great intensity and sombre drama with the timpani having a stern impact. For some reason the forty-six bars of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus (1791) were tacked on to the end and, although radiantly sung by the chorus, seemed rather out of place and anticlimactic.

The Requiem is one of Mozart’s greatest symphonic works with dissonant writing for the trombones providing an uncanny similarity to the writing for the trombones in Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony. This coupling emphasised the radical dissonances in both their scores.

If you want to hear a perfectly balanced performance of Mozart’s Requiem I strongly recommend Benjamin Britten’s ‘live’ 1971 Aldeburgh Festival account (with Heather Harper, Alfreda Hodgson, Peter Pears, John Shirley-Quirk, Aldeburgh Festival Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra) on: BBC Legends BBCL 4119-2

Alex Russell


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